Hobble business, and hard working Australians suffer

This opinion article by Business Council chief executive Jennifer Westacott was published in theAustralian on Thursday 29 December 2018.

As we reflect on the end of the year, we normally make wishes, but sometimes we have to be careful what we wish for.

This has been the year of ­unprecedented attacks on business, some of it deserved, much of it ­opportunistic.

We end the year with the country in good shape.

It can be tempting for some to overlook the conundrum that many Australians don’t feel they are sharing in the gains. And it is even more tempting for others to believe the remedy to this community disquiet is to take a heavy hand to business, with little regard to the consequences.

Community sentiment remains determinedly in the doldrums. For most Australians, they quite rightly perceive that their cost of living is creeping up while their wages growth treads water.

Legitimate concerns weigh on their minds. Australians are worried about jobs, getting ahead, ­opportunities for their families, and whether technology will up-end their workplaces.

The political leadership carousel is bewildering, and the community feels let down by institutions they once trusted.

The greatest pitfall we face as a nation as we head into the new year is subscribing to the myth that somehow community dissatisfaction can be soothed by turning against the forces that have delivered Australians an enviable quality of life for decades.

We cannot forget that business is the engine room of the nation’s economy, employing 11 million of the almost 13 million working Australians.

Business paid $86 billion in company tax last year, up from $71bn the year before. This contribution is expected to be more than $100bn by 2021-22, and cumulative $1 trillion across the decade. This is more than enough tax to pay for the entire federal health budget.

And business pays billions in dividends to its shareholders.

A race to the bottom of who can most demonise business is an own-goal, and there are four disturbing trends we must guard against next year.

Unnecessary regulation that takes a big stick to companies isn’t a quick fix, it’s a recipe that makes doing business in Australia more costly and cumbersome.

Winding back workplace relations to a 1970s strike-ridden system isn’t a nirvana, it will disrupt our day-to-day lives. It will shut down some small and medium businesses. And don’t forget what it’s like to queue for petrol during a fuel strike.

The biggest losers will include Australian workers who have less choice about where they work, and when, and it will hamper the ­ability of Australians and businesses to work together to adapt to technological change

Burying our heads in the sand on the absolute necessity that ­medium and large employers must be able to compete globally isn’t an easy option, it’s a handbrake on growth. It will saddle business with extra costs, a high company tax burden and no incentive to invest in Australia.

And frittering away the surplus is foolhardy when the nation is only just across the black line. We cannot take our eye off the importance of maintaining a strong budget position. Going down these roads has real consequences for everyday Australians.

For the past year I’ve been lucky enough to talk to Australians living in Adelaide, Townsville, Cairns, Broadmeadows, Penrith, Gladstone, Busselton, Toowoomba, and Geelong as part of our Strong Australia campaign.

Australians in these communities tell us they understand the critical role business plays in their cities and towns. They want to see industries of all sizes investing in their communities, and they want a serious plan to reduce red tape, which discourages employing even one extra person.

They want to see more people in their communities. They want to see a hopeful Australia.

And just like the Australians who live in the inner city and suburbs, they want to see young people getting access to meaningful jobs and the education, skills and training they need to guarantee their futures.

Australians want to be part of the national conversation, not ­excluded from it.

They know the value of enterprise and they acutely understand the gaping hole that is left when it goes — the shops close, their children don’t have jobs, and their opportunities evaporate.

They understand that to be a strong Australia, we have to have strong businesses.

So, my wish is for them. My wish is that 2019 is the year we stop talking about ourselves and the jobs of people in Parliament House, and we start talking about the jobs and futures of people in our regions, towns, cities and suburbs. My wish is that this is the year we do something for the Australians who work hard but are not getting ahead. It’s the year we do something for the people who worry they won’t have the skills to keep working and are anxious their job will be replaced by technology.

It’s the year we do something for the Australians who worry about big institutions — be they government, business or unions — recklessly wielding power.

So, 2019 has to be the year we draw a line in the sand on the anti-business agenda.

This isn’t to whitewash over the obvious; there are those in the business community who have done the wrong thing. This behaviour has been unacceptable and ­inexcusable, nourishing much of the anti-business sentiment.

It’s clear that the business community needs to clean up its act. Let’s punish the wrongdoers, but don’t take it out on the Australian workers and business owners. We cannot go into a new year with a contest on the fundamental role of the ­private sector.

The things Australians wish for are the same things I wish for them. They want a good, meaningful and fulfilling job with the opportunity to advance, get more money in their pockets, do more for their families and have a better life. They want their power bills to go down. They want to know we are living in a safe and secure ­nation, and they want Australia to be a responsible country that is taken seriously on the world stage.

They want to know they will be able to work for as long as they need to, and have the new skills for the future. They want to stay true to the Australian character by looking after their friends, their neighbours, their communities and those people who are not as well off as they are.

Only business can deliver these things. Only business can give people a job, give them skills and train them. Only business can protect Australian jobs by growing, ­increasing their operations and exporting more. Only business can put more money into the coffers of governments so we can spend on services, such as a sustainable welfare ­system.

Only business can pay people higher wages, grow, invest in technology, compete with their international rivals and operate smarter and more efficiently.

Only business can employ more Australians, which keeps unemployment down. When there is more competition for workers, businesses pay them more.

Only business can get energy costs down by investing in existing power plants, keeping them going for longer, and investing in new technologies. Only business can give people the products and services they want, including the new developments and innovations that will make their lives easier.

So, when people deride business, when they talk business down, and when some people want to see business fail, they should be very careful for what they wish in 2019.

Jennifer Westacott is chief executive of the Business Council of Australia.